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Virtue and Moir victims of scoring error in Quebec

Value for combination lift value now correct, says U.S. Figure Skating

Canadian duo Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir should have won the Grand Prix Final free dance.
Canadian duo Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir should have won the Grand Prix Final free dance. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/03/2012) - At the Grand Prix Final, held in Quebec City in early December, Meryl Davis and Charlie White's free dance to Strauss' "Die Fledermaus" edged out Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir's Funny Face.

Except it didn't.

On Dec. 28, the International Skating Union (ISU) issued a communication announcing an error in the scoring of the combination lift in the free dance, an error that existed not only during the Grand Prix Final, but all season long. The statement reads, in part:

The calculation program used up to and including the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final had erroneously calculated the Dance result with the previous Grade of Execution (GOE) for the Combination Lift, which was upgraded with ISU Communication 1677 in July 2011 ...

The difference of 0.5 points emanating from this calculation error would have been enough to result in a switch in the free dance ranking of the 2011 Grand Prix Final.

The additional 0.5 awarded to Virtue and Moir -- the reigning Olympic champions who included a combination lift in their program -- did not impact the final standings; Davis and White, the U.S. world champions who elected to do individual ["short"] lifts, led by 5.16 points after the short dance and handily won their third consecutive Grand Prix Final. But instead of posting a 0.05-point edge in the free dance, their Canadian training partners would have bested them by 0.45 in that phase of the event. The Canadians' original free dance score of 112.33 is still posted on the ISU website.

In Canton, Mich., on Monday, where the two teams took the ice for their first training session of 2012, it was business as usual.

"Look at the NFL: How many millions of dollars are spent on its [officiating], and mistakes can still happen," White said. "It's certainly nothing that is going to cause us to make any changes to our free dance. All it means is that the combination lift is worth the same number of points as two short lifts. We feel our elements go perfectly with the music, and the music, actually, makes it easier to do them.

"The [Swiss Timing people] are always there working hard. They do not have an easy job."

"The [scoring] system changes every year and while it was definitely an oversight, I don't think it's anything any of us have the right to judge Swiss Timing for," Davis said.

Marina Zoueva and Igor Shpilband, who coach both of the two top teams, agreed.

"This is just a mistake that happens," Zoueva said. "The ISU works very hard on the judging system."

In this instance, the error shows only what everyone in figure skating already knows: The two teams are locked in a tight battle for ice dance supremacy that may well continue through the 2014 Sochi Olympics. But Dr. George Rossano, a California-based research scientist by day and longtime figure skating scoring expert who has studied the mathematics of the ISU scoring systems for more than 20 years, said it could have additional implications.

"It is to the ISU's credit that it communicated the error," Rossano said. "But what kind of quality control process is in place to assure the accuracy of the scoring system each season? Skating does not need the black eye it would receive if an error like this affected the results at a World or Olympic championship."

Part of the problem, according to Rossano, is that the ISU generally makes several changes in base values and grade of execution (GOE) values for elements each year, communicated piecemeal during the less-active late spring and summer months. In July 2011, it announced changes to the GOE values for the combination lift; good combination lifts, as discerned by the judging panel, would gain more credit than previously awarded, while poorly executed combination lifts would be awarded less.

Not surprisingly, many fans see judges award GOEs ranging from -3 to +3, and think those are the amounts added to the elements' base values. That's not the case.

"You have to make a distinction between the GOE, and the GOE value," Rossano said. "There are grades of execution from -3 to +3, but each grade has a corresponding point value, and they are different for each element. The higher the base value of an element [the more difficult it is], the higher the GOE value for each GOE.

"This season, a +3 GOE in a combination lift is worth three points, which is added to the lift's base value. Last season, the +3 GOE value was 2.5 points. Virtue and Moir's lift gained straight +3's. [A single +2 GOE was thrown out, as the lowest score.] So, they should have had three points, and instead they only got 2.5."

Swiss Timing, the Corgémont-based company that maintains the ISU's scoring program, updated other changes in GOE values announced in Communication #1621, but, as evidenced by this season's scores, overlooked the combination lift change.

"In my opinion, every change to the calculation rules needs to be thoroughly tested by running test scores and verifying the software produces the correct result," Rossano said. "If Swiss Timing only spot checks changes, then the integrity of the product is only as good as the spot check. A test should have been run for the new combination lift values. It would have taken, maybe, an hour."

In its Dec. 28 announcement, the ISU stated it had made random checks of this season's results, and the Grand Prix Final was the only event that had a change in standings due to the error. But since the program was flawed all season long worldwide, why is the error only coming to light now?

"A mistake in the panel's calculated GOE value is not as obvious as an error in base value," Rossano said. "People don't usually look closely at that value to verify it is calculated correctly. Also, the ISU doesn't maintain a single document with a table of the current scale of values [SOV] for all elements that can be printed out each season and referred to when studying protocols. U.S. Figure Skating, on the other hand, does produce one."

The error will not impact ice dance scoring at the 2012 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, to be held in San Jose, Calif., Jan. 22-29.

"We have been made aware of the error in the IJS software and U.S. Figure Skating's software has been updated accordingly for all future competitions," a U.S. Figure Skating spokesperson said. "This did not impact any result at our recent sectional competitions."